The Silent Struggle of Bethlehem’s Christians
It’s a surprisingly short drive from West Jerusalem to Bethlehem – 10 or 15 minutes, at the most. But on a hot summer night a couple of weeks ago, it felt like I had traveled light-years, setting out from a bustling city-center Jerusalem neighborhood and arriving at a modest home in a quiet Bethlehem village.
In my mind, the leafy, well-lit street from which I departed was quickly juxtaposed with my gloomy destination. I flashed back to a journey I had made from West to East Berlin in the late 1980s. Back then, the Stasi (East German secret police) were the threat.
Today in Bethlehem, it’s the Islamists.
After the guards glanced at our United States passports, my American friends and I were waved through the checkpoint that separates Israel from King David’s ancient hometown.
Upon our arrival, the wariness of our hosts also felt eerily familiar to me. I could almost read their minds: “Who saw them come into our house? Who might be listening? Can we trust these friends-of-friends?”
For me, having visited Berlin before its infamous wall came down, the mood was reminiscent of the bad old days: Life behind the Iron Curtain.
My friends and I spent time with, among others, a Christian woman and her small family. I wish I could tell you her name. And I would like very much to describe her circumstances – her needs, her struggle to keep financially afloat and her family’s specific fears.
I also wish I could use real names when I write about other Bethlehem Christians – those I’ve met and those I’ve heard about through trustworthy friends.
Why can’t I name names or cite locations? Because the slightest hint that Bethlehem’s Christians are “informing outsiders” about the troubles they face might very well endanger them, not to mention their friends and family members.
Today, much of the tension in Bethlehem and elsewhere in the West Bank is blamed on the “Israeli occupation” and the security fence.
In some places, including Bethlehem, there is indeed a formidable military wall – also reminiscent of Berlin – officially called the “West Bank Barrier.” It divides Arab communities from the Israeli population.
It is true that the wall is an encumbrance on the people who live behind it. It is an eyesore and, in some places, has taken a heavy toll on business and commerce.
The checkpoints into Israel can be a nuisance. This is particularly so since Arabs and Israelis alike were able to come and go without restrictions until the ill-starred Oslo Peace Accords robbed them of their freedom of movement.
But the security wall has also saved Israeli lives. It was erected during the Second Intifada, during which a seemingly endless barrage of exploding buses, pizza shops, cafes and other public venues devastated Israel for well over three years, costing more than 1,000 lives.
It is widely reported that after the West Bank Barrier was constructed, the number of suicide bombings decreased by more than 90 percent.
Today, terrorism continues in Israel, but it wears a different face. Palestinians primarily target soldiers and religious Jews who live in settlements. These attacks are sporadic and unpredictable, involving stabbing with knives or machetes, vehicles ramming groups at bus stops or the stoning and firebombing of cars and buses. One recent attack on a chic Tel Aviv café involved firearms.
Since September 2015, 40 people have been killed in these terrorist attacks and 517 people have been injured.
As for the security barrier, when the Palestinian cry of “Tear down this wall!” is heard in Israel, the response is defiant: “Stop the terrorism or forget about it.”
In the meantime, it is quite clear that the West Bank’s Christian population is diminishing. In 2013, Rosanna Rafel reported that “in British-mandated Palestine, before the establishment of Israel in 1948, the percentage of the Christian population stood at 18 percent. This figure has now dwindled to under 1.5 percent.”
This plummeting Christian population is invariably blamed on the “Israeli occupation.” But if this is so, why isn’t the Muslim population diminishing too?
Christians are escaping the West Bank because of anti-Christian persecution.
In Bethlehem, Christians are not just a minority population in an overwhelmingly Muslim community. They aren’t simply marginalized; they don’t just suffer discrimination. Too often, they are threatened and intimidated; injured or even killed. They are cautious. They are uneasy. Many of them live in fear.
In the March 2016 issue of Providence Magazine, The Philos Project Executive Director Robert Nicholson wrote a persuasive article, “Why are Palestinian Christians Fleeing?”
He explained that “the Palestinian Authority – the government created by the PLO to manage the West Bank and Gaza – is, by its own constitution, an Islamic state that embodies the principles of sharia.”
Christians living under the PA are “accorded sanctity and respect,” but, as is the case under all sharia-based systems, Christians are relegated to the status of second-class citizens. Of course, it is illegal to convert from Islam to Christianity. Let’s not even mention the fact that sale of land to Jews is a CRIME PUNISHABLE BY DEATH.
Discrimination against Christians under the Palestinian Authority isn’t just legal – it’s also social. Living as a Christian, one is CONSTANTLY REMINDED that he or she is not a member of the majority culture.
Bethlehem’s Christians are at risk of being detained by authorities based on vague accusations. An “interview” with local officials may lead to stern threats or, even more frightening, to an arrest on trumped-up charges.
Justus Weiner, a scholar at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, has written extensively about the condition of Christians under the Palestinian Authority.
“Under that regime,” Weiner explained to me, “Christian Arabs have been victims of frequent human rights abuses by Muslims. There are many examples of intimidation, beatings, land theft, firebombing of churches and other Christian institutions, denial of employment, economic boycotts, torture, kidnapping, forced marriage, sexual harassment, and extortion. PA officials are directly responsible for many of the human rights violations.”
Weiner told me that Muslims who have converted to Christianity are in the greatest danger. They are defenseless against abuse by Muslim fundamentalists. Some have been murdered.
Many Christians are subject to various fees and fines, which amount to bureaucratic extortion or protection money – a thinly disguised “jizya” tax.
Chuck Kopp has been a pastor in Jerusalem for nearly half a century; he and his wife lived for several years in Bethlehem. “We can no longer remain complacent regarding the plight of the Christian minority in the Palestinian Authority,” he recently told me. “Something significant needs to be done to rectify this current imbalance.”
Meanwhile, story after story confirm that Christian women are sexually harassed, threatened and even raped for not following Islamic dress codes.
In my book “Saturday People, Sunday People,” I wrote about a young Christian woman from a village near Bethlehem who was walking home from school. She was not “covered,” meaning she did not wear an Arab-style headscarf or a long skirt.
When a gang of local Muslim males cruised past her, made obscene remarks and tried to force her into their car, she escaped and ran home, where she tearfully poured out her terrifying experience to her brother “Habib.”
It didn’t take Habib long to figure out who the Arabs were.
He knocked on the door where the ringleader and his friends hung out. When Habib demanded that they leave his sister alone, they laughed at him.
They were, however, not amused. In the days that followed, they began to track Habib.
One afternoon, Habib and his cousin went to a nearby forest to walk and talk and relax. Suddenly 13 young men, who had arrived in cars and on motorbikes, surrounded them. At first, they seemed only to be armed with sticks and a billy club. Then the knives appeared.
While his cousin was beaten and held back from interfering, Habib was stabbed 28 times. He was knifed on the head, neck, hands and the inner thighs (the attackers were trying to sever a main artery) and left for dead. Once the assailants fled and the cousin was released, he frantically drove Habib to the hospital before he bled out. Habib received massive blood transfusions; his wounds were repaired, and his life was spared. But he still requires further surgery.
During our visit in Bethlehem, my friends and I also spoke to a workman – we’ll call him George – who does outdoor maintenance near a Bethlehem school. This year, despite an intense heat wave, and notwithstanding the fact that he is not Muslim, he was angrily threatened with physical harm for publicly drinking a bottle of water during Ramadan.
Elsewhere, we heard about a Christian property owner who had rented an apartment to a Muslim family. When the rent came due, the new tenants refused to pay. This continued for months. The local authorities were alerted, but they simply shrugged. “Nothing we can do about that,” they said. “Our hands are tied.”
In recent years, several church properties in Bethlehem have been vandalized, set ablaze or invaded by violent intruders during celebrations or worship services. PA law enforcement usually arrives long after the emergency call is made – if at all.
In a recent tragedy, a young man suffering from mental retardation and who lives in a Christian village (one of his friends refers to him as “a blessed boy”) heard offensive anti-Christian statements emanating from a local mosque.
Infuriated, he shouted an insult to Muslims.
Later, he posted something equally anti-Islamic on Facebook.
A few days later, the “blessed boy” vanished. At the time of this writing, he has been missing for more than three months. His family is utterly traumatized, afraid to approach the local authorities. They fear both devastating news and deadly retaliation.
We ourselves were blessed, listening and learning from the Christians we visited. Meeting us was an act of great courage on their part. For us, it was an extraordinary opportunity.
As Nicholson wrote,
I’ve spoken to numerous Palestinian Christians who describe how Muslim terrorists would commandeer Christian homes and use them to direct sniper fire on Israeli soldiers. Others speak of SYSTEMATIC DISCRIMINATION in hiring, housing and education. Of course, all of these conversations take place in private meetings and hushed tones.
Christians in Bethlehem rarely interact with Muslims beyond the marketplace, and are, in fact, very much afraid. But in public, Palestinian Christians equate their situation with that of their Muslim neighbors and laud the happy coexistence between the two groups.
They don’t have a choice. They are hostages inside their own city.
This article originally appeared at Philos Project, August 1, 2016, and reposted with permission.
Lela Gilbert, a Distinguished Fellow in American-Israeli Journalism for Hillsdale College, is Lead Contributor to the Philos Project blog. Lela, a Christian who has lived in Israel since 2006, is an award-winning writer who has authored or co-authored more than 60 books. Her most recently published work is the critically acclaimed Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner. She also co-authored Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians and the award-winning Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion. Lela is an adjunct fellow at Hudson Institute and a frequent contributor to Fox News, National Review Online, The Weekly Standard Online, The Jerusalem Post, The Huffington Post, and many other publications.
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No Easy Way to the New Home of Kehilat HaDerech (The Way) Karmiel
A large percentage of Messianic congregations in Israel meet in rented halls, and sometimes, often on more than one occasion, their leaders and members encounter situations where they have to move, come to grips with the upheaval the change brings and adapt themselves to a new reality; whether it be temporary or permanent.
Few congregations in the country actually purchase the properties in which they hold their activities. Kehilat HaDerech in Karmiel is included in a large group of Messianic congregations that meet in a hired venue. In the last two months, most of Kehilat HaDerech’s 160 members have had no choice but to wander and have resorted to meeting in parks and also meeting in the building owned by Katzir Asher (Harvest of Asher) congregation in Akko.
Kehilat HaDerech has been able to rent a spacious venue which will accommodate the growth rate and variety of activities and demographics of the community, especially their 50 children, but they struggled to find this suitable property before the end of the lease of the previous property where they have met for the last 11 years. As a result, there is an overlap and the new meeting place is not ready for them to move in yet.
Liron Shani, one of Kehilat HaDerech’s pastors explains:
“In the past two years we have invested great effort in the search for a building we could purchase, but we had difficulty in raising the necessary funds to do so. So we started looking for a suitable property to rent. Availability of buildings in Karmiel is limited and one of the companies which owns many properties, refused to work with us because we are Messianic. Finally we found a building that is under construction and the owner signed a long-term contract with us. The date of the end of the lease on the old building was the end of May 2016. As the new building will only be ready this fall, we tried to extend the lease at the previous building by a few months. Unfortunately, the owner had already rented out the building to someone else and the new lessee would have let us stay in the building on the condition that we signed for an entire year. Seeing as we could not afford to pay rent twice and we could not persuade him to rent it to us for a shorter period of time, we left the building at the end of May.”
In the meantime, Kehilat HaDerech finds itself homeless.
“Since the beginning of June, we have been practically nomadic; a wandering and homeless community. Congregation Katzir Asher in Akko approached us and offered us the use of their building for our gatherings. Since our service times are different, there has been no time-conflict between the two communities meeting at the same place. We are grateful to God for Guy Cohen, the pastor of Katzir Asher congregation and its members for opening their homes, hearts and wallets to support us in such a generous way and providing us with a true oasis in the time of our wandering. In the past two months we have split up our meetings; having 2 to 3 meetings each month in the Akko congregational building, one monthly gathering in one of the parks in Karmiel and one monthly gathering in small groups in different congregation members’ homes.”
It’s no simple thing when it comes to a long-established congregation, with many members and multiple activities. How does it affect the life of the congregation?
“The wandering has not been easy. Although there are challenging experiences and an atmosphere of adventure that comes with them, it is evident that it is tiring and making it difficult for people to attend meetings. When we meet in Akko, we hire a bus to transport people; and many members of the congregation who have a car volunteer to transport their friends. The traveling makes it difficult especially for the older congregants and families with toddlers, who often prefer to avoid long road trips. However, we are witnessing a joint cooperation of the congregants, showing mutual care and concern for each other, helping each other out and it gladdens our hearts. The meetings in the park require a lot more logistic organization. It also requires a compromise, since it’s harder to keep an eye on children and we cannot use sound amplification. Also air conditioning in the park is not very effective in the month of August,” he adds with a smile.
Despite the complexity and difficulties, the congregational leaders offer words of encouragement saying:
“The small groups meeting in homes are very special and enable a different kind of bonding and fellowship, which greatly contributes to the life of the congregation.”
Are fewer people coming to the main services?
“Indeed there is a noticeable decline reflected in the number of people attending every Shabbat due to the traveling. We are in contact with most members of the congregation and attentive to their different needs and thank God for this opportunity and look forward to entering our new premises soon.”
What do you do about congregational activities during the week?
“Activities of the congregation during the week remain almost unchanged. Congregational staff members have been working from home; various staff meetings have taken place as usual in one of the pastor’s homes, prayer meetings and house group meetings have continued to take place on a regular basis. The office has been moved to the home of two members of the congregational staff, and in fact work has continued quite normally by the grace of God.”
Why did you want to move to another building anyway?
“We started meeting in our previous congregation building in 2005 with a long-term contract. The building was a source of true blessing for our congregation and we enjoyed it very much for 11 years. Over time, our community grew substantially and we felt that the place was no longer meeting all our needs. The assembly hall was getting a little crowded, there were not enough Shabbat School classes and we didn’t have enough office space during the week either; also, there was no “Safe room” in case of emergency which is demanded by law; but, the biggest drawback was the lack of a playground for children. The building itself was on a busy street and we had concerns about the premises being so close to the road. “
As mentioned already, members of Kehilat HaDerech considered purchasing a property, but for financial reasons have not been able to attain this goal. Liron goes on to describe:
“Indeed we have considered and are still considering purchasing a permanent place and we would very much like to do so, but it is not economically viable at this stage. The new lease is long-term, but there is an agreement where every few years, we have the possibility of ending the contract sooner without incurring penalties; in the event that we will be able to purchase a building suitable for our needs. Ultimately, the congregation consists of people and not bricks and despite the many advantages that a permanent structure provides, we have learned over the years to rely on God and trust Him to provide what we really need, and indeed, in all the years of our existence as a community, we have never been disappointed. So, we are happy to keep wandering, following after the Lord wherever He leads us … “
Liron also makes it clear that the relationship with the owner of the building where they spent over a decade has always been good, and remains so, despite everything.
Rachel (Rachely) Scapa, studied journalism at the Open University TLV under Yedioth Aharonoth's journalist Dudi Goldman. Rachel served as news correspondent for various radio stations abroad, including BBC 3 Counties and Voice of America, both in English and Portuguese, giving the best reports from Israel. Currently she has two radio shows - one in Portuguese, which she has had for more than 13 years, presenting News from Israel and the ME. In the other, in Hebrew, she presents Brazilian music, on an Israeli radio station. Rachely is also a columnist for a Christian newspaper in Brazil, distributed over the triple border between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay.
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Prayer Request for Israeli Messianic Leader Undergoing Second Surgery
On August 5, 2015 Jacob Damkani underwent a type of heart surgery called an aortic dissection. Aortic dissection occurs when a tear in the inner wall of the aorta causes blood to flow between the layers of the wall of the aorta, forcing the layers apart. Click here to read about the initial procedure last year.
Below is a prayer request from Jacob and his wife, Elisheva.
Yet I will exult in the Lord,
“The Lord is my strength and song,
And He has become my salvation;
This is my God, and I will praise Him;
My father’s God, and I will extol Him.” Exodus 15:2
Beloved friends and prayer partners,
Grace and peace be with you! We want you to know that you are in God’s loving and strong hands, He knows where you are at and He has the best plan for your life – and ours.
It was almost exactly a year ago when on August 5, 2015 God saved Jacob’s life. We had not finished yet celebrating this great victory of the Lord a year ago, when Jacob had to be hospitalized again last Friday night. A check up in the hospital revealed an infection in Jacob’s blood and also at the piece they transplanted in his artery a year ago. Jacob needs to undergo the same operation again Wednesday morning.
We would like to ask you all to pray for Jacob. Prayer remove mountains, they help doctors, and most of all they bring forth God’s will for His Kingdom and in our lives.
Thank you so much for being with us all the way. We are so thankful to have you, to feel your love, to know of your prayers.
We send you much love and blessing, Jacob and Elisheva
Update from Jacob and Elisheva on August 9, 2016
All praise be to our God! All thanks to the tearing down of the veil by the blood of the Lamb and to such great invitation to the holy of holies to pray boldly.
As so many of us have been praying in true faith, the team of doctor’s and some professors discussed “this case” and decided that they will try a week with antibiotics. Hopefully this will cleanse the blood and valve from the fungus and I will not need an operation.
Thank you so much for praying, we believe that is already the first answer. Please, let’s continue to unite our hearts in prayer that God will make good use of this medication to purify this body for a good service unto him.
The Kehila News Staff is a team of Israeli believers in Yeshua.
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Unique Israel Experience for Messianic Young Adults from America
The sun was beginning to set over the Judean Hills as I drove into the Moshav called Yad HaShmona. The group of young people who had recently had a tour of Israel from the Young Messianic Jewish Alliance (YMJA) was sitting in a circle, talking about their recent experience in Israel.
Not wanting to interrupt this sacred space I happened upon, I sat quietly, impressed by the thoughtfulness and spirituality of the participants. They honestly shared their thoughts and feelings as to how the recent three weeks had impacted their lives. I could have listened for hours and it seemed to me, they could have shared for that long. Earnest, heartfelt and eager, they were transparent and vulnerable, excited and hopeful that what they had learned and seen would have lasting effects.
I spoke with the group leaders, and received background information.
This is the third Experience Israel Trip that the YMJA has taken. The goal is to give their Messianic young people a Messianic Jewish experience in the Land. They want to provide an opportunity for them to deepen their sense of Messianic Jewish identity, help them solidify an understanding of the biblical and historical significance of Israel, and to give them the opportunity to serve in the Land.
The trip encompasses all kinds of different service projects, including working in a soup kitchen, blessing Holocaust survivors, volunteering in local organizations (The Joseph Project, Vision for Israel, etc.) who provide practical help for the poor, cleaning up a Messianic elementary school (Makor HaTikvah), working on different farms, bringing toys to children in the hospital, etc.
They also tour all over the country and visit important biblical and historical sites. Lastly, they participate in the Messianic Jewish community in Israel by attending services at congregations and fellowshipping with Israeli young adults.
This sounded wonderful and glorious, to me. As someone who has been in Israel for over 20 years, it is possible to become jaded, and not to remember the zeal with which we made Aliyah. I listened some more, as the participants shared from their hearts.
“Before the trip I had grown somewhat apathetic, and this trip re-ignited my passion! The richness, color and diversity all over Israel…I now have a new appreciation for painting and have discovered a love for gardening and cooking!”
Another said, “My life has a deeper meaning. When I went to Yad Vashem [The World Holocaust Remembrance Center] and realized Anne Frank died at 15 years old, with all of her aspirations and passions, I realized that I needed to fulfill my own aspirations and passions, in a sense, to honor her. I don’t want to dishonor her memory by not living to the fullest.”
“We went to the place where Yeshua was buried and rose again. This is the same God we are going home to. It’s important not to lose it.”
“We have to go home and be ambassadors. So many people have no understanding of what it is like here. I felt safe and at home.”
I was touched and inspired, but wondered if, in fact, there were lasting results. I needn’t have worried. According to the coordinator,
“We have definitely seen lasting results. Our young adults who attended our 2012 trip continue to tell us how the trip has changed their lives. Of the 28 young adults we brought to Israel, three have made aliyah and are currently serving in the army. One is in the process of making aliyah and enlisting. Two others have studied abroad in Israel. From our 2003 trip, two young adults have made aliyah and are now living productive lives in Israel. Further, many of our young adults are college-aged students and have explained that the trip helped them to formulate an educated response to those who oppose Israel in their university communities. We feel extremely blessed to have had the opportunity to take 13 young adults in 2003, 28 young adults in 2012, and 25 young adults in 2016.”
More participants shared…
“It helped solidify my Messianic identity when I didn’t even realize it needed solidifying. I came away with more than a better understanding of why I am a Messianic Jew, but also a conviction of the importance of the Jewish roots of our faith and how those roots are really are relevant to everyone, Jew and Gentile.”
“The trip gave me a new sense of pride in Israel and a desire to learn more about the country. I identified with the Jewish people in a way that I hadn’t before, finally understanding the importance of a modern Jewish state.”
“G-d changed me so much on this trip, and the spiritual changes that were made in me were nowhere close to what I expected.”
“The Bible truly came alive to me while I was in the Land to the point where I want to study the Bible and study it in a way I’ve never studied before.
As I drove away, the sun had set, and I felt a deep sense of peace. Sometimes, walking where Yeshua walked and living where He lived, can lose it’s luster. We live in flesh and blood bodies and experience exhaustion and discouragement, and can, if we are not vigilant, lose our focus. As much as these zealous young people became re-ignited and rejuvenated, so did the writer, in seeing the earnestness of their faith and their desire to come and serve, or return and advocate. Both are needed, both are important and we welcome it all, in whatever capacity God impresses upon you.
As much as you need Israel, she needs you.
Come and see. Come and stay.
K. J. Kruger is a mother of four and has lived in Israel for over 20 years. As teacher, life coach, writer, and speaker, she has been passionately involved in reconciliation between Arabs and Jews, and sees her role as being part of tikkun olam.
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Melody of Eternity: A Messianic Music School for Children in Haifa
About 5 years ago my wife suggested we start a music school. She herself loves music very much, and all our kids play musical instruments, the older ones even on a professional level.
The goals for the music school:
- To give the children in our congregation a chance to receive good musical education.
- To serve underprivileged new immigrant children in a humanitarian way and keep them off the streets.
- To grant professional musicians an opportunity to teach instead of “cleaning the streets”.
- To give both children and teachers the chance to learn the melody of eternity under the umbrella of a Messianic Congregation.
Now the Rainbow of Sounds Music School under the umbrella of Return to Zion Ministries is in full swing. We have 45 students, many of whom are very talented. The school employs 11 teachers part time – some of them are believers, while others are far away from God, as is the case with most immigrants from the former Soviet Union (that empire of failed communism and belligerent atheism). But all of our teachers love the atmosphere at the Messianic Congregation. For me this is a barometer of activity or non-activity of the Holy Spirit.
Now allow me to introduce you to one of our teachers, an accomplished musician immigrant:
My name is Mindia. I am a composer, arranger, producer and teacher. I was born in 1973 in the city Batumi, Georgia in the Former Soviet Union. After teaching music at university level, in 2012 I immigrated to Israel and now live in Haifa. For one year now I have been teaching piano and music theory at the “Rainbow of Sounds” School of Music and Arts under the umbrella of “Return to Zion Ministries”.
The school is like one big family. We rejoice together with our students. Their success is also our success. Each time one of the kids advances in musical expression, it stimulates me to continue and to create more and more.
No other activity unites the soul, spirit and mind like music – while connecting us with our heritage and improving perception, empathy, self-control and memory.
We would like to expand the school to include audio recording, as well as advanced content such as arranging, harmony, acoustics and musical variety.
Playing a music instrument requires a long term commitment. There are no shortcuts to mastering a skill. This is especially important to impart to our children, since today’s world is bombarded with fast technology and instant gratification. For this reason, we so appreciate the chance to further develop the school.
Please pray for our music school, as a spiritual initiative – for the Lord’s face to shine upon all participants, students and teachers alike, that they may open their hearts to Him.
This article originally appeared in Israel’s Restoration Newsletter, August 2016 and reposted with permission.
Leon is the founder and congregational leader of Shavei Tzion (Return to Zion), a Messianic congregation in Haifa, Israel.